International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, Day 2-5
What exactly is Musique Actuelle? Based on performances on the second day of the 22nd International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, it's a somewhat enigmatic classification. Is it jazz? Certainly there are elements, although one might be hard pressed to find anything that fits a reductionist definition that asserts it has to swing. Is it contemporary classical music? Again, there's no question that some of the artists are both informed and inspired by more left of center compositional constructs. Is it rock? Not likely, although there are certainly groups in attendance that would fit, either directly or through their more vigorous, groove-centric sensibility. Improvisation is certainly an element in many performers' musical universes, although there are some performers whose work is more rigidly structured.
No, Musique Actuelle is one of those hard-to-specifically define musical categories that is perhaps best considered by what it is not rather than what it is. It's not any of those previous definitions, and yet, in some ways, it also is. And while it incorporates numerous elements from a multitude of sources, it begins to take on its own life during the course of Victoriaville's festival. Certainly it leans to the avant side of things, often is as concerned with texture as it is more conventional concepts like melody and rhythm, and can range from sublime beauty to unnerving aggression. But the underlying philosophy is clearly one of experimentation and innovation.
Michel Cote leans towards the gentler side of the equation, yet embraces a broad range of dynamics and sonics, favoring a conducted or rehearsed approach to improvisation. He opened the day's schedule with an ensemble that, along with his own electronic percussion and other electronics, included an innovative turntablist, a pianist/sampler, violinist, guitarist and theremin player. The hour-long composition moved from points of freer improvisation to clearly defined yet abstract constructs, often cued by the subtlest of hand signals. More about shape than specific form, there were times where the overall texture approached the ambient, but was just as likely to swerve into denser territory.
The combination of instruments gave the performance a distinct character. Turntablist Martin Tétrault asserts that the turntable can, in the right hands, be a legitimate musical instrument. Rarely using actual vinyl for his soundscapes, he could be seen using such odd devices as a wooden platter, where the needle of the turntable would create a soft sound that integrated with the samples going on beside him. Guitarist Bernard Falaise clearly comes from the Derek Bailey/Fred Frith schoolat least in this performance, as he's known to be a stylistically diverse player in other contextsutilizing a variety of techniques to draw more textural sounds. Thereminist Frank Martelwith the exception of one point where he resorted to the kind of vocalization effect that is the stereotypical space of the instrumentwas remarkably innovative, extracting surprisingly visceral low tones out of the instrument, and elevating it beyond its more conventional use.
Cote himself found ways to extend the concept of electronic percussion beyond its more anticipated musical space. Hitting the triggers with a microphone resulted in deep, in-the-gut tones that, along with some of Tétrault's thicker sounds and Martel's rich bass timbres, created a powerful pad over which the guitar and violin could layer their own devices.
Meant to be experienced in a broader sense, felt as much as heard, the cinematic performance had its own arc. The ensemble was as likely to come together in apparently defined directions as it was to break down into passages of pure cacophony. Occasional moments of dark beauty would emerge, only to dissolve into discord.
With their intriguing blend where the unconventional instrumental mix would yield its own distinctive personality, Cote and his ensemble provided a fitting start to a day that would be highlighted by additional forays into unfettered discovery.
Two artists who have appeared frequently over the years in Victoriaville, yet have curiously never played together, are saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton and experimental guitarist/composer Fred Frith. And based on their first musical encounter this year, one hopes that it won't be their last.